After teaching one of my classes at school, I sat down to some maté with my accompanying teacher. We got to talking about past volunteers in my community, one in particular with whom he remembers spending time.
“Miguel seemed to like challenges,” he said.
“Yeah, we [volunteers] all do,” I replied, laughing. “This whole experience is a challenge. For example, I have no experience teaching, but I want to come to the school.”
He assured me that I was doing a good job, a comment that I needed more than he may have realized. He also recognized that, although often rewarding, teaching has its frustrations. I thought for a moment before continuing my thoughts on the challenge of teaching in another language with little previous experience.
“I remember looking up to and admiring my teachers, and I want to have students who feel that way about me.”
As someone once said…….WHOOMP, THERE IT IS.
Teachers were my heroes growing up. I think I tried so hard in school because I wanted to make them feel that what they were communicating had stuck. I wanted to know as much as they did. Now I have been given an opportunity to see education from the other side of the exchange. It’s something at which I would love to succeed.
The problem is, I get nervous speaking English in front of groups of people. Add in a second and third language and I get just plain sweaty. I slip up often, and I get laughed at by some of the older kids. Sometimes I laugh at myself too, which is perhaps the healthiest way to deal with anything embarrassing that happens in Peace Corps.
Last year I didn’t feel like sharing much about my work in the school. That’s because every time I went in I was extremely nervous, almost scared. This year in the school I feel more confident, although I can still hear my insecurities in my voice when I speak. I still feel out of place, but support from the teachers has helped me feel that what I am doing matters. School is a great place to talk about the environment to the next generation.
This year I am helping with five classes. One is a sixth grade work and technology class about tree nurseries. Over the last few weeks we have cleaned up the nursery at the school and planted local seeds I have managed to pick up around the community. The focus of this class is knowing the technical terms and processes that are necessary for success, so a lot of time is spent in the classroom along with planting in the nursery. We have talked about different planting processes and constructed a compost pile for use in a couple months. I’ve noticed the students start to check on the nursery when they come into school in the morning….they once alerted me to the fact that a cow had passed right through our seed bed, despite the fence. So they also learn about obstacles and setbacks, and destruction caused by cows.
Second grade also gets to participate in the tree nursery. Early on in the school year I read The Lorax to them and talked about the importance of trees. In addition to seeds found locally, we hope to obtain those of endangered species (like the Truffula was!) to plant in the nursery. These kids love looking at the different types of seeds, and their excitement is contagious. They are also a group accustomed to singing while their teacher plays guitar, so I hope to play ukulele with them and teach some environmental songs. When I was in second grade I learned an entire song in Spanish, De Colores, so that will be my first choice.
I consider my seventh grade garden class to be the most challenging, mainly because I am given absolute free rein to teach whatever I want and I sometimes get stumped. My goal for this year is to teach some permaculture and get lots of flowers planted for pollinators. Our school has a lunch program, so we’ll be able to use the vegetables from the garden to add to what is already given to us.
The class I am most excited about this year is focused around an agroforestry plot I am helping to start up. My undergrad thesis took me to shaded coffee growing regions of Nicaragua where I have fond memories of forested mountains that were also productive farms. Fortunately, my school offers a class on agriculture and natural resources that allows me to share my passion for ecologically-friendly farming. This year, I’m doing it through planting yerba mate. Yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) is a tree native to the Atlantic Forest and is consumed every day by Paraguayans. Production offers an opportunity to promote reforestation and agroforestry due to its need for a shaded habitat. Yerba also sells for a good price, providing an alternative source of income when the market for vegetables is poor (a big problem for farmers in my community). My students planted locally harvested yerba seeds, and we hope to see germination in about three months. Thanks to a donation from a government agency, we are also caring for seedlings that can be transplanted after winter break. Last year we planted kumanda yvyra’i (pigeon pea, a fast-growing bushy tree that fixes nitrogen) in a designated area behind the school to offer temporary shade for our delicate yerba plants. Recently transplanted tree seedlings will eventually create a forest habitat. Branches from yerba trees can be harvested after five years of growth. In the near future, my school will be able to implement education on harvesting and processing. If we are lucky enough to grow our own mate from seed this year, we can offer plants to community members so they can start their own plantations. In class, students will learn about agroforestry systems and characteristics of native trees. I hope to leave my students with an understanding and appreciation for agroecology, and I’ve been invited to come back to drink some of what’s growing in the nursery now.
Finally, preschool. Working with the youngest kids at the school is something I truly treasure, because their minds are still so open and imaginative. Last year I read Where the Wild Things Are and talked about ecosystems and the butterfly life cycle. Application was done through artwork, and the kids also learned Spanish (at this age, they speak mostly or all Guarani). This year, my lessons will be focused around the books The Giving Tree and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Often at this age, artwork is partially completed for the kids so that all they have to do is fill in the lines. For The Giving Tree we are having them draw their own version of the book. I sat watching them draw, saw the difference among them. Some know exactly how to copy the image of a tree. Some are much more abstract. The kids who draw things less “correctly” are often ashamed of their work. I’ve heard “I don’t know how to do this” and “I don’t draw well.” It’s eye opening, and it’s rewarding to tell a kid that they are doing just fine, even if what they produce doesn’t look like the others. I’m drawn to the ones who lack confidence because they remind me of me, even today, and especially in regards to teaching. I remind myself as well that what I’m doing is working, even if it’s not perfect. After making leaf crowns with the kids in celebration of the “giving trees” around us, I watched them go to recess still wearing them. I hope they carry more than that with them when I leave.
So is it worth the challenge? I would say it is, and I look forward to it remaining a challenge that makes me a better teacher (or treeacher”??) every day.